King of the Lobby
The Life and Times of Sam Ward,
in the Gilded Age
by Kathryn Allamong Jacob
Johns Hopkins, 240 pp., $40
A well-regarded newspaper once declared that “the word ‘lobbyist’ is justly deemed a term of reproach which no respectable man is willing to have applied to him.” Not much has changed since the New York Herald said this in 1875. In the popular imagination, the lobbyist remains perfidious. He is the oleaginous man in the shiny suit who slithers into congressional offices and promises campaign cash and lavish gifts in return for votes. He betrays the republic for “special interests” and his own gain. It was not for nothing that a whoop of joy erupted across the land when Jack Abramoff was thrown into prison a few years back: He fit the image of the evil lobbyist, with his black trench coat and fedora, and his dealings with gambling interests, corporations, and the government of Sudan.
As always, reality is more complex than the Abramoff caricature. Plutocrats are not the only ones who employ lobbyists; you can see this by examining the Senate’s Office of Public Records online lobbyist database. Hired guns work for just about every cause and issue imaginable: accounting, advertising, agriculture, aerospace, alcohol and drug abuse, animals—all the way to welfare. Those who hire lobbyists are similarly diverse: AFL-CIO, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Anheuser-Busch, even charities and state and local governments. This year, Senate records show that the Randolph County Commission in Alabama has employed a lobbyist to attain the “development of funding sources for county’s economic development, transportation, and criminal justice programs and projects.” Like the poor, lobbyists will be with us always.
In this deft and diverting volume, Kathryn Jacob shows that lobbyists may do good by encouraging elected officials to set aside their differences and work together. No congressman can pass a bill on his own; he needs a couple of hundred colleagues to vote with him. Sam Ward was a paragon in this respect. Known as “the king of the lobby,” he was a political force in post-Civil War Washington, a friend and confidante of presidents, congressmen, movers and shakers in town, and he knew how to make the wheels of government turn.
Born in New York in 1814, Ward was the scion of one of the principals of the Prime, Ward, and King bank. Though a bit feckless, Sam Ward was no layabout: He had an appetite for derring-do, and a sharp mind. He learned Spanish, German, and French, and graduated from Columbia at 17. Offered a professorship in mathematics at West Point, young Sam declined and took off for Europe. It was there that he obtained the knowledge that ultimately made his career: gastronomy. Ward ate and drank his way around the Continent and in England, and his family name and connections gave him entry to the right social circles. He networked relentlessly, charming nobles and the nouveau riche alike.
He burned through a small fortune, and his father summoned him home in 1836, enjoining him to take up the family business. Sam showed little interest in banking, and spent much time studying academic subjects, palling about with the likes of Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow, Charles Sumner, and other intellectuals, and eating at Delmonico’s. The fun soon ended: His father died, and in short order, so did his younger brother, new wife, and first-born son. He remarried badly, and Prime, Ward, and King collapsed. After making and losing a bundle in the California gold rush, 45-year-old Sam Ward landed in Washington in 1859. The nation’s capital was a muddy, disheveled town in a swamp plain, whose handful of neoclassical government buildings were separated by dirt streets and rows of straggling cottages.
The Civil War made the Federal City even less attractive. Though hostilities ended in 1865, there were bad feelings all around. The government was undergoing a wrenching growth spurt, expanding attempts to repair the nation and contend with the economic disruption brought by industrialization. “Policymakers,” Jacob notes, “lacked the time, staff, money, and expertise to cope with the explosion of business that came with the expansion of the government’s powers.” Many of them were at each others’ throats.
The time was perfect for a man with restless energy, the gift of gab, and a taste for good food and drink. Sam Ward, with his flashy clothes and gift for yarn-spinning, was impossible to miss and made entertaining company. Destitute, he talked his way into the offices of nearly everyone of importance—and once in, was welcomed back by most. He spent his days glad-handing, vacuuming information, meeting with those who wanted to get things done. He was a social connector, a go-between for congressmen and agents of the many new interests in town. The moneyed powers loved Sam Ward, and made him rich. He took their money eagerly, and spent a lot of it on lavish dinner parties where he fostered friendships and brokered political deals.
The press of the time regularly derided the “huge, scaly serpent of the lobby” and the immoral “spider women” who persuaded congressmen. Sam Ward, however, largely escaped criticism. This was not because he was wholly aboveboard—which he was not, lifting government stationery for use in his lobbying correspondence, appropriating congressional franking privileges to mail personal correspondence, giving baskets of peaches, wine, and more to members of Congress, perjuring himself before committees—but compared with the spider women and lobbyists who stuffed the pockets of legislators, committee staff, and reporters with cash and stock, Ward’s transgressions were comparatively small beer. Add to this his personal charm and his useful efforts in helping politicians get things done, and reporters had little cause to sully “Rex Vestiari” with bad ink.
After a 20-year run, Ward left Washington and lobbying, and as in his youth, squandered his last fortune. Rascal that he was, he absconded from his creditors, landing in England, then Italy. He died in 1884. After word of his death reached America, the New York Times ran a 4,000-word obituary, and dailies around the nation mourned the passing of the “great reconciliator.”
Kevin R. Kosar is the author of Whiskey: A Global History.